FOOD & DRINK
Food in London can be
dreadful, and can be fantastic (generally if money
is no object.) However, unlike Paris where you're
guaranteed decent food for about £10 a head,
in London be prepared to spend double that - and the
quality varies so much you can't just walk in and
expect to eat well, unless you're from America's
'fly-over states'... Outside London the picture is
bleak indeed. It's not that the Brits can't cook: we
have a fine array of great chefs and some of the
best restaurants in the world (the Fat Duck in Bray
outside London vies with El Bulli in Spain for that
title, and the deputy chefs from both restaurant
have their own establishments now in South East
London) it's just that to eat well costs so much.
Think £50/$90 a head and then some at a good
restaurant, or one that's any way near fashionable.
We think the best strategy is simply to survive
without injuring your wallet or digestive system. If
your visit to London is part of a European tour,
save gastronomy for France, where it's cheaper. That
said there are a number of perfectly good, cheapish
(for Britain) restaurants where we eat regularly -
you'll undoubtedly meet us there if you follow our
A final groan: English social life revolves around
alcohol to a degree we've not seen anywhere east of
Poland. It's difficult if you take alcohol in
moderation. The average Brit likes to get drunk, and
then roar up and down the street in an aggressive
manner, before vomiting and going for a curry. This
is not new and was the chief complaint of 18th
century visitors like de Sassure - his descriptions
of London life ring true even today. Dostoievsky
remarked on the Londoners' rowdy consumption of
alcohol and a leading Moscow journalist told us: "In
Moscow we have a problem with alcohol, it is true,
but in London you have a bigger problem with
Good Cheap eats
For cheap eats the axis that runs along the south
side of Leicester Square (Irving St and Panton
Street) is a magnet: old faithfuls like the Stockpot
& the West End Kitchen serve cheap and cheerful
food, very similar to what a stereotypical English
family would eat at home (Lancashire Hotpot,
Shepherd's Pie, Fish and Chips etc) and the
competition between these neighbours drives the
price down. There's also a Chinese and an Indian
buffet, and a branch of the Singaporean veggie
chain, Woodlands. Wagamamma ( a decent basic
choice if you need a restaurant and rated London's
most popular restaurant, though the prices have gone
up and the quality between restaurants varies a lot,
and it's noisy) have premises in the basement of an
Irving St block. However, the area can be a bit
busy, and you can do better by venturing further
afield. Remember that thie higher the rent the lower
the food quality for any given price...
Decent quality vegan and vegetarian
food at 10 Greek St in Soho and other central
locations. The buffet is £6 (£5 at
lunchtimes) and the quality of the food is very
acceptable (it's the only vegan place we'd eat at) -
all presided over by a taskmistress of a Hong Kong
owner. There's another very good value buffet
('Buffet V') at 40 New Oxford st St, between the
British Musuem and Holborn tube.
Diwana Very interesting cheap and tasty southern Indian food, a world away from the curries of the north that form the basic staple of the average British curry house. Excellent lunch buffet with dishes we'd never seen before, canteen-style, cheap and very good service. In Drummond Street, NW1 a block north of Euston station in a street dominated by South Indian culture, and amazing asian sweet shops Website Highly recommended.
Ecco/Icco No nonsense pizza, salad, panini, coffee house at 46 Goodge St, a favourite of the local television and advertising industry and often full of bicycle couriers. Pizzas are £3, and are freshly made before your eyes. Very relaxed - a good supply of newspapers, sit outside in good weather. The only cavil we have is with the cheap aluminium seats. They're expanding over London, and about to slightly change their name due to a clash with another company. Called the Italian Coffee Company or Icco variously. Also at 186 Drury Lane , Covent Garden (Ecco) and 40 Strutton Ground in Victoria near the Cathedral (Ecco)
Wagamamma trendy canteen-style noodle house, haunt of students and anyone with an eye for a bargain, full meal can be had for £10 (including drink). Fresh, healthy food, with attitude:All over London including: Wigmore St (behind Selfridges), Bond St, Streatham St (near British Museum), Lexington St (between Piccadilly and Oxford Circuses), Camden Lock, the Royal Festival Hall South Bank, Covent Garden (south of the Market) and Leicester Square (Irving St).
All Bar One & Slug and Lettuce Two chains that serve decent food. All Bar One is targeted at women and has the obligatory sofas, their menu is reasonable - for about £7-8 a head you can eat quite well in all branches - however some won't serve children. The Slug and Lettuce chain is another brand. Both are friendly and offer good service and are seemingly everywhere across town, and the UK. Avoid on Friday nights as get very busy and loud, and on Saturday nights after 2100. At other times they can be very user-friendly and though they don't have smoke-free zones the aircon is efficient.
Fish and Chips - we're a great fan of this fatty, carb-laden snack. Costs about £3 - add your own salt and vinegar. Less available in the city centre than it should be. Please avoid cod or monkfish as they're being overfished. Far more information than you'll ever need about fish and chips can be found here .
Curry: at the Indian YMCA: see below.
French/Algerian Momo, on Heddon St, off Regent St, is the most fashionable, and we think, best. Madonna and other stars hire out the whole restaurant for entertaining friends. Their cafe is excellent for afternoon or early evening snacks and costs 1/4 of the price. Moro at 34 Exmouth Market, just south of King's Cross is also excellent, if a bit far out for most tourists. Cheaper is the Souk, between St Martin's Lane and Charing Cross road, a few metres away from The Mousetrap.
Sushi-bars: none but the most expensive rivals Kyoto or Vancouver in quality, but they can be a good source of cheap food: Gilu Gulu on St Martin's Lane and Ikkyu on Newport St in Chinatown offer all-you-can eat for around £12, which is a good deal. Ikkyu have a better branch on Tottenham Court Rd, just by Goodge St Station. There's also a good concentration down Brewer Street in Soho (just north of Piccadilly Circus)
much of the chinese cuisine in London is
authentically chinese - ie: lowbrow, rather than
Hong Kong or San Francisco style, though of course,
all markets are catered for. Remember that 'Chinese
food' is like 'European Food' and there is a long
distance to travel between pickled herring and
fettucine. An authentic chinese restaurant will have
dual menus and be full of Chinese eating stuff
you've never seen before, unless in China itself,
and maybe not even there. A case in point is 'My Old
Place' in Petticoat Lane (Liverpool St) where we're
usually the only westerners, but it's friendly and I
can guarantee you'll eat stuff you've never
experienced before - for example the shredded chili
potato or any of the Szechuan dishes. Beware the
tastes here can be extreme.
Persian Cuisine is often over-priced, for example on Edgware Rd but there are bargains to be had: Mahdi on King St, Hammersmith ( a stone's throw from Ravenscourt Park tube) is a favourite, extremely cheap and authentic, full of Iranian families. Fermented buttermilk is the thing to drink and the stews and bread are fantastic. They were prosecuted for the state of their kitchens a few years back but have cleaned up their act since then. We eat there regularly... we've worked in 4* kitchens and have seen things that would make your stomach turn ( in one posh hotel, meat dripping onto the trifle, mould on the sponge and very fermented fruit) and have never been put off eating at Mahdi.
Thai food in London can be expensive, but is usually good. Our favourite, and the best is Esarn Kheaw, (Southern Thai/Royal cuisine) 314 Uxbridge Road, Shepherd's Bush - a bit far out for passing trade - we live 10 miles away and eat there for the food. The Blue Elephant in Fulham also gets good reviews, but isn't cheap
Vietnamese there's a Viet enclave in Hackney/Shoreditch - just north of Liverpool Street (Shoreditch or Old Street tubes are nearest) - it lies on Kingsland road just south of the Geffreye museum. Unpreposessing surroundings but very good food - The Viet Hoa, Tay Hoa are OK but the best of the bunch is the Song Que Cafe - virtually next door to the Geffreye Museum - we regularly eat there. A much better bet than Brick Lane curries if you're in the area and want to eat ethnic - Shoreditch/Hoxton area is brimming with restaurants brimming with media types so there's a lot of competition. We eat at the Song Que at least once a month and it's one of our favourites, not least because it's extremely cheap (try beef in betel nut, soft shell crab, fresh rolls, any of the soups).
(sub continental) - Britain's favourite food -
official. Indian food in England is very good, if
not authentically Indian. Actually it's mostly
Bangladeshi, but if you can find Pakistani cuisine
it's worth seeking out. The best 'Indian' food comes
from up north, in places like Bradford, but there's
little else there worthy of attention. Actually some
of the best Anglo-Indian restaurants in the world
are in London, which has taken the cuisine to heart,
refined it and amplified it. In particular the style
of 'Balti' cooking, which was invented here, like
Chop Suey was in San Francisco. Basically it means
tasty, fresh ingredients and seasoning, and should
be cooked in a small wok, and brought to your table
in it. Served with bread, not rice. It's even been
endorsed by no less an august body than the British
Medical Association, as an excellent source of
minerals (they leach out of the wok into the
Persian/Afghani/Cypriot inhabit a strip called Green Lanes in Finsbury Park (Manor House tube, then walk north with the park on your left. Persian and Afghani food up here is good, but there are some Turks and Cypriots too (Check Hardens for which is the best). There's another turkish/cypriot enclave at the very top of Kingsland road (vide supra) - the restaurants are OK but many of the cafes are not women-friendly.
surprise, surprise, there is no British cuisine -
we've imported and refined all the world's cuisines
and made them our own. That said some specialties
deserve mention: School Puddings - the way
to tell a Public Schoolboy (read private if you're
from USA or Europe) is by their taste for nursery
puddings - bread and butter pudding, sticky toffee
pudding, spotted dick (don't ask) suet pudding
(contains animal fat), jam roly poly, rice pudding
and sago. They're great and we do them better than
we do French or Italian desserts. Pies just
don't ask what goes in them - you've seen Sweeny
Todd.... Actually varieties like Guinness and Beef
pie, and Steak and Kidney, if well made are great -
often they're not. Recently Cornish Pasty stalls
have been set up in stations and other late night
haunts - and offer a much better than average quick
food option: they're targeted at people with the
munchies and you can smell them several hundreds of
yards off (this is a ploy in the same way
supermarkets pump baking bread smells into their air
con units). However they can be salty and full of
saturated fats in the pastry.
Vegetarian - easy to find in London (use the Harden's website - see our guidebook page for details) and even in carnivore dens the vegetables aren't cooked with lumps of meat as they are in France. South Indian cuisine is vegetarian and there' a whole row of restaurants on Drummond St by Euston Station that never have to use a cleaver. The various branches of Cranks (eg Charing Cross, Goodge St) - the best is reputed to be Champor- Champor (they also serve meat) in Weston St, SE1, near Borough Hospital.
- used to be something of a cult, restaurants like Belgo
made Moules Frites a habit in the 90s - but maybe
it's just their range of Strawberry and other
flavoured beers (heartily recommended). Their
special offers (lunchtime, early evening before
18:30) offer excellent value - otherwise they can
work out expensive. The decor is great. An
experience. 50 Earlham St, Covent Garden, also in
Chalk Farm, Ladbroke Grove, Upper St,
Our shortlist of more expensive restaurants is here.
Our favourite meal of the day: clotted cream,
strawberry jam, Earl Grey Tea and minute cucumber
sandwiches, perhaps with a cream cake to finish.
Sundays are the best days, though nowadays such is
the popularity that you often have to book. Don't
even think about strenuous activity, or even dinner,
for at least three hours afterwards. There are
several great places to harden your arteries in
Eating/Hanging out Areas:
Soho - high rents here mean low value. The average restaurant works Mon-Fri to pay their rent (the land is controlled by a handful of landlords) and only make profit at weekends. Plenty of restaurants and coffee bars (not cafes), but we've had as many bad as good meals here. It's a great area to hang out, great buskers, streetlife and a colourful history - though small fry compared to Paris' rive gauche. The Poets Rimbaud and Verlaine used to hang out here, getting horribly drunk at their favourite bar on Old Compton Street (Number 5) then staggering from pub to pub round the area. -
St Christopher's Place very pleasant area with a European feel, just north of Oxford Street, with restaurant seating out on the street.
Shepherd's Market - sheltered enclave in Mayfair, just north of Piccadilly - great for a summer's evening. Currently under development so we can't predict what will happen to the area.
Marylebone - villagey feel to this small, wealthy, area between Oxford St and Marylebone St.
The Borough - great for alfresco lunch on a Saturday, at Borough Market. Has 'Maria's Cafe' and the Monmouth Coffee shop - two of the best places for breakfast in London. Maria's has moved into the main market and lost its 'greasy spoon' premises. Monmouth do an 'open table' where you pay £2.50 to eat as much as you can of a top-quality continental brekkie. Nb: VERY busy on Saturdays when the Organic/gourmet market is on. Great place for breakfast other days of the week, or for buying fruit 'n' veg at 4 in the morning. Also a (small) number of decent restaurants on Bermondsey St. London Bridge tube, including Magdalen on Tooley St/Magdalen St - the chef is fresh from the Fat Duck.
Hoxteth - ugly but trendy area, once full of curtain and cloth making warehouses, now converted into trendy bars, clubs and restaurants. Transport difficult - Liverpool St or Old st tubes.
Hampstead - another village, but with a million pound price tag. Expect the likes of Sting or Naomi Campbell to complain if you order meat.
Upper Street This main thoroughfare through Islington is famed for the concentration of restaurants - the New Labour conquest of Parliament was planned at Granita at Number 127, and there are very few shops between the restaurants. We recommend Turkish cuisine - due to competition the price and quality are in opposition. If it weren't for the traffic this would be a great hanging out place, and Islington Green would be a major pull.
Hill Large concentration of
restaurants both north and South of the tube
station. On Kensington Church Street, which runs
south they tend to the fashionably expensive, and
clustered around Portobello road and All Saints Road
there are many trendy restaurants with a slightly
lesser price tag. It's also a centre of the largely
overlooked soft drugs trade - around Park Road -
made fashionable (again) by Bridget Jones (at number
licensing laws can be archaic and ridiculous - but
Britons' problems handling alcohol remain. The laws
are in the process of revision, but not the mores.
Basically there will be a time (often 2300) when the
establishment's ability to sell alcohol runs out,
Cindarella fashion. Traditionally a bell will be
rung and 'last orders' shouted just beforehand.
However if you eat, or the pub is actually a club,
or has a special licence, you can continue to drink.
This is largely held to date from the attempts to
get Wartime Munitions workers to work harder - but
as early as 1700 there were regulations in force
closing alehouses at 2200 in winter and 2300 in
summer - to prevent rowdiness. A good guide to
opening hours (and an invaluable source of info
about public lavatories) is HERE.
Beer - although Czech/German bottle beer is popular, traditional British beer should not be looked down on just because it's served at 'room temperature' (actually cellar temperature) and has a name like 'Old Scroat's throat remover'; the tradition of 'real ale' is a good one, given the economic climate and monopolisation of the market by a few companies. Real Ale is an acquired taste, but once acquired is rarely abandoned. Microbreweries often brew something that's a cross between standard and real ale.
Most pubs are owned by brewing companies and won't sell other beers - perhaps a 'guest ale' like old scroat's but generally pub ownership is seen as a business like any other. A Free House, rarer, can sell what it likes. Look out for a sticker for CAMRA the real ale accrediting body.
See our Nightlife Page for details and pub recommendations.
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